Theresa May faces reality as Brexit begins

Analysis: British prime minister adopts a conciliatory tone in her letter to Donald Tusk

European Council President Donald Tusk accepts a letter from the British ambassador to the EU that triggers a two-year countdown to Brexit under Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. Video: Reuters

 

British prime minister Theresa May has adopted a conciliatory tone at the start of the United Kingdom’s negotiations to leave the European Union, stressing the shared interests on both sides and playing down her threat to leave without a deal. Her letter to European Council president Donald Tusk begins with an assertion that Britain shares European values and Britain’s desire for the EU to succeed and prosper.

“We want to make sure that Europe remains strong and prosperous and is capable of projecting its values, leading in the world, and defending itself from security threats. We want the United Kingdom, through a new deep and special partnership with a strong European Union, to play its full part in achieving these goals,” the British prime minister says.

May implicitly accepts that Britain will have to make an exit payment to the EU, telling Tusk that the two sides need to discuss “how we determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the United Kingdom’s continuing partnership with the EU”. And she acknowledges the need for transitional arrangements after Britain leaves, saying that both the UK and the EU would benefit from “implementation periods” to adjust to new arrangements.

Hard Border

And she says Britain and the EU have “an important responsibility” to make sure that nothing is done to jeopardise the peace process in Northern Ireland, and to continue to uphold the Belfast Agreement.

The narrow limits of May’s room for manoeuvre in the negotiations is unchanged, however, and she repeats that Britain will leave the single market, although she does not mention the customs union. She says in her letter that her approach remains the same as she set out in her Lancaster House speech in January, when she said Britain would leave the customs union’s common external tariff.

Theresa May's Brexit letter

Sharp exchanges in the House of Commons with the Scottish National Party’s Angus Robertson yesterday served as a reminder that May faces a struggle to preserve one union as she leaves another.

‘Scottish independence’

After Tuesday’s vote in the Scottish parliament calling for a referendum before Brexit is complete, the issue will remain alive. And every step May takes in the negotiations which pleases hardliners on her own benches risks reinforcing Scotland’s fear that its interests are being ignored.

Agenda

She appears to accept that the talks will begin with the divorce settlement but calls for an early start to negotiations on a broader agreement.

The EU has shown signs of flexibility on the timetable, so that parallel talks on both elements could begin soon after the divorce talks are under way.

Despite her earlier assertion that no deal would be better than a bad deal for Britain, the prime minister tells Tusk that she will work hard to avoid leaving without an agreement.

But in a scarcely-veiled threat, she warns that “a failure to reach agreement would mean our co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened”.

May’s letter and her statement to the House of Commons have made the best of the poor hand she has dealt herself by ruling out membership of the single market and the customs union and promising an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain.

Influence

EU leaders are likely to respond in kind, with warm words and a promise to make the negotiations succeed, but no change to their fundamental position that Britain cannot have a better deal outside the EU than it enjoyed inside.

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